Ha Long Bay independently
First published 27th November, 2009
There's been plenty of discussion about the best way to explore Vietnam's famed Ha Long Bay, and Travel Fish's five-part series definitely examines the most common ways in excellent detail. However, if you're tired of pre-booked tours, cramped buses, and a stressful time-schedule, than travelling independently by bicycle is a truly relaxing way to experience the natural glory of Ha Long. Even still, surprises and mysterious conspiracies seem unavoidable, but being in control of your own destiny is very rewarding in and of itself.
Like every other approach to karst-viewing, the journey by bicycle begins in the hectic, cramped streets of Hanoi's Old Quarter. A slow pace is required to coexist with the constant traffic, and plenty of diligence is necessary to escape the insanity, but departing via the East Gate provides an excellent access point to north-eastern Vietnam. The immediate first task was crossing the Red River, but the conveniently located Long Bien Bridge solved that problem. Our plan was then to take Highway 5 east, until it intersected Highway 1 north. After asking numerous bystanders for directions we'd succeeded to navigate the two major highways, and despite the signs saying no bicycles, we proceeded past the long line of women selling fresh bread. Every 25 metres or so, for at least a kilometre, a bread saleswoman had a large basket set up, overflowing with fresh loaves, seemingly oblivious to the plethora of direct competition.
Twenty kilometres later, near the town of Bac Ninh, the real ride begins. Highway 18 east provides a direct link to Ha Long City, and is a relatively peaceful, well-paved, and flat ride throughout. The remaining kilometres pass by numerous towns, several of which have guesthouses on offer. The best choice, the town of Sau Do, 70km from Hanoi and 77km from Bai Chay -- the tourist-side of Ha Long City -- sits virtually at the halfway point.
Sau Do is a small town with little to offer, and the most affordable guesthouse (150,000 Dong) puts out the red-light as soon as darkness falls. But the people are kindly, the pho is tasty, and there's oddly also a Western-style fast-food restaurant on the main road that sells delicious fried-chicken sandwiches and french fries. For breakfast there's the cheapest egg baguette sandwiches in all of Vietnam, only 5,000 dong each, prepared by a friendly tip-refusing old woman in the town's main circle. Food aside, there's plenty of time to relax and read in your room, unless checking out a dodgy massage or an outright prostitute just next door, is more your style.
The next morning it's back on the road, though it really doesn't take long to do the ride on a mountain bike, as we managed to hit our fastest average speed ever, almost 25km/hr. So in theory the entire trip could be covered in one day, especially depending on your mode of transit. Obviously a rented scooter or motorbike would take no time at all, our weighed-down mountain bikes took between six and seven hours total each way, and if you decided to be brave and didn't carry much baggage, the entire journey could be conquered on a standard one-speed bicycle.
Our one error en route to Bai Chay's underwhelming touristic allure was a costly geographical mistake relating to Cat Ba Island. We knew it was near the mainland, so we took a bridge over to the first island we saw. We asked people about "Cat Ba" and they pointed over to the island, it looked similar enough to the map in our guidebook which also mentioned a new bridge was being built, and it was in close proximity to Ha Long Bay since we could see the outlines of some karsts in the haze.
An hour, a massive hill, and twelve kilometres later, we finally realised we were on Tuan Chau Island, home to an overpriced resort and little else -- especially once we met an English-speaking man on the pier (we'll call him Mr. X) who explained the ridiculous situation we'd just put ourselves in. This marked the beginning of a conspiracy: another man on a motorcycle -- Mr. Y -- had also been following us around, pointing towards Bai Chay and talking in limited English of tours and guesthouses -- we'd wisely ignored his sales-pitch, but were foolish in choosing not to listen to his general knowledge of the area.
Finally back on the correct path, with darkness arriving per usual, we approached Bai Chay, refuelled with some cold milk cartons, saw Mr. Y twice more keeping tabs on our whereabouts, and entered the competitive madness of Vuon Dao Street. Since most people come on packaged trips direct from Hanoi, the strip of cookie-cutter micro-hotels don't always see the number of customers you'd expect for such a famous destination, so the price-slashing was fierce.
We opted to avoid the cheapest and grimiest place though their low bid of only 80,000 dong/room was tempting, but as we were heading to Laos overland we knew we'd be staying in plenty of grimy hotels in the near future. For $15 we got two clean rooms, with Wi-Fi, hot-water, air-con, TV, and all the other typical Vietnamese amenities: a drain-plug that didn't work and beds that varied in comfort.
As we headed downstairs to go out for dinner, who appeared but Mr. X, ready to sell us a boat trip with Paradise Tours: $60 for two days/one night or $35 for only one day, both prices non-negotiable. Needing some time to think, we filled up on fresh seafood, and then unsuccessfully searched for a travel agency. Apparently Bai Chay has few of the bucket-shop variety, even though they're everywhere in Hanoi. Strange.
We did manage to find one shop near the water, with prices for the same trips for $35 and $12 respectively, but they didn't want to sell them to us because the cell phone costs for an English translator were too high, even though the man on the phone said it would be no problem. We searched for more alternatives, failed, and finally returned there, forcing an answer out of a breast-feeding employee, who said we could return at noon the next day to join a tour coming from Hanoi. While noon seemed rather late, at least we'd gotten some semblance of an answer, but we still planned on checking out the pier the next morning.
That's exactly what we did, easily managing to line up a private tour for $15 each, an extra $3 seemed like money well-spent to enjoy the bay on our own. But we needed to eat first, so we told the man we'd return in an hour. Of course when we came back, he was gone. Back to square one, we hurried to the "come at noon" shop, but even though it was noon no one was there -- except Mr. X, now happy to represent the cheaper option, though it turned out to be no longer available. Strange.
We headed off in the other direction, since we'd seen some boats docked there while hanging out on the other pier, and within a few minutes had entered negotiations for a private cruise. We hadn't yet got to price, but the family seemed friendly and enthusiastic, until someone (maybe even Mr. Y?) pulled up and parked a bit away on a motorcycle. Suddenly all they could say was "sorry" before retreating back to their boat to hide from us. Two minutes later, guess who appeared?
Mr. X came to the rescue -- how convenient -- and a different boat was just about to leave for Cat Ba island, so we could stow on-board, top-deck only, for 220,000 Dong each. Feeling we had little choice since time was slipping away from us, and that we'd evidently been claimed by him in some conspiratorial tourist game, we shaved 20,000 Dong off the price, handed over the cash, and hopped on-board literally as the junk untied its ropes and headed off into the bay. So we did effectively get our private-tour wish, and at $11 the cost was unbeatable, but we couldn't help feeling a little suspicious of the whole situation.
The one table on the top deck was ours so we couldn't interact with anyone else, the crew was friendly and shared shots of their banana-moonshine with us, and since the real paying customers -- all three of them -- just wanted to get to Cat Ba in a hurry, we had the whole second half of the journey to bask in the glory of Ha Long Bay alone. If we ignored the hordes of other tourist junks all around that is, which was fortunately far from a problem.
Though Vietnam may indulge in a bit of over-promotion -- with just a hint of a racketeering -- even with floating garbage and slightly oily waters Ha Long Bay is quite worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage designation. It showcases a unique combination of natural beauty and traditional life, truly a place of one thousand postcards.
The four hours of camera-clicking passed quickly, during which we visited a so-called floating village: a collection of a few houses, a small fish farm, and several young women on boats selling fruit. We could have taken a boat or kayak through a limestone cave ($5), or we could have visited Dragon Cave (20,000 Dong), but we passed on both those "opportunities" since we just wanted to enjoy the scenery. There must be something about a cycling trip that really makes "enjoying the scenery" the most desirable option, or perhaps traveller's malaise is subtly creeping up on us...
Back on our bicycles, the urbanity flew by a little quicker on our return journey to Hanoi, the people of Sao Do were a little less surprised by the cycling whities the second time around, and retracing our route into the Old Quarter didn't even require us to ask directions! If you'd like to travel truly independently, but aren't sure if you're ready to make a long-term commitment, then the challenge of Ha Long Bay by bicycle is perfect. A decent amount of exercise, a little adventure, a touch of intrigue, delicious food, and some fantastic natural beauty are all lying in wait, all that's missing is you, the daring adventurer!
We'll be running a new entry from Anderson and the team every week for the duration of their trip across Asia. We hope you find it an interesting view into what another's journey through Asia can be like. There's a delay of a few weeks between where they are and the story appearing on Travelfish, so if you want to know where they are right now, be sure to check out their blog. Comments, as always, are welcome.
Story by Anderson Muth
Related readingAn introduction
24 hours in Bangkok
Muay Thai night
Ko Samet Vs Pattaya
Battambang, bamboo trains & guides
An Angkor cycling guide
Confessions of a "cheating cyclist"
Cycles of all sorts
The hills of Vietnam
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